Author's Note: To give this thing a bit of much needed context, it's heavily inspired by Episode 64 of the anime; you know, the one where chibi!Fuji flips through his photo albums with those (creepy) shots of chibi!Yuuta. After seeing that, it really wasn't all that difficult to imagine Fuji stalking people with his camera for fun, and things just went downhill from there.
Disclaimer: I don't own The Prince of Tennis.
"Hoi! Hoi! Fuji! Fuji!"
And so, a few well-chosen exclamatory remarks in rapid succession later, Kikumaru Eiji-sama had made his splendid presence known to the rest of the world (and his fellow students in Class 3-6 in particular), all while storming through the door with his usual, spirited gusto. But before the tensai in question had the chance to return the favour and wish his newly-arrived friend a good morning, the red-head had already slammed down both of his hands on Fuji's desk with a resounding smack.
Then, confident that he had done enough (because surely first-thing-in-the-morning dramatics demanded some sort of response – no, they totally deserved it – and naturally, in his dual capacity as Eiji's other Dream Pair half and best-friend-who-wasn't-Oishi, Fuij's reaction was bound to be both concerned and immediate), Eiji waited, albeit not too patiently…
…and was deeply disappointed when contrary to every single one of his expectations, Fuji Syusuke did absolutely nothing.
Of course, that was not to say that Fuji was being mean and inattentive on purpose. In fact, it was quite the opposite. But while Eiji's certainly qualified as a somewhat 'unusual' greeting by anyone's standard, Fuji had (courtesy of Eiji being Eiji, and not, say, Tezuka or someone equally unlikely, though Fuji would gladly pay good money to see that happen) faced far more exotic greetings in morning pasts. On a scale of one to ten, Eiji's latest antics had only earned him a tame three, and were nothing that Fuji hadn't seen before. And so, he did not look up from the book that was occupying the space between Eiji's extended paws.
"Ne, Fuji. Fuji?"
Still no response, and though the cat-like Kikumaru disliked repeating himself, he liked being blatantly ignored by his best friend (who wasn't Oishi) even less. "Fu-ji! I'm talking to you, NYA!"
The sudden edge to Eiji's voice made it crystal clear to anyone who might have listened in on the conversation (mostly Fuji, since this happened too often for anyone in Class 3-6 to really mind it anymore) that Eiji was feeling decidedly dissatisfied with the turn of events thus far, enough so for it to result in drastic measures should he be pushed any further.
Naturally, Fuji didn't think for a moment that his friend might resort to something dangerous, because, really, Kikumaru Eiji was the closest thing to genuinely benign that Fuji had yet to come across in life. Still, Eiji could be awfully short-tempered in a way that reminded him very strongly of Yuuta at the age of five-and-three-quarters (oh! but those were the salad days of their youth; before their attending Seigaku and meeting Tezuka and everyone, before even relocating to faraway Tokyo, and long before that Misaki-person invited himself into all their lives to steal Yuuta away), so Fuji took a moment to quietly reconsider his position.
If he didn't acknowledge him properly, and that soon, chances were that Eiji would embark on something 'proactive'. The usual Kikumaru-hit-and-run was unlikely in this case, seeing that Eiji for once seemed more interested in talking than playing (as well as the very real fact that class would be starting very soon), but the snatching and then disposing of Fuji's book (the number one offending article of the morning if Eiji's death glares were anything to go by) was very much still on the table – and Fuji really ought to do everything in his power to reduce the risk of somehow losing out on the ending, shouldn't he? After all, judging from the multiple plot twists and unexpected character development (assuming that the author wouldn't let him down with a cliché-infested and boring '…and so they rode into the sunset and lived happily ever after' kind of non-closure), it promised to be nothing short of spectacular.
Then there was also the well-known fact that Eiji was blessed with a set of reflexes and a reaction-time superior even to Fuji's. So if push came to shove came to a mad dash for it, Eiji would surely get there first; his beloved book would be long gone (probably making a swift exit through one of the open windows) before Fuji even had a chance to react.
"What is it, Eiji?" asked Fuji distractedly, eyes still glued to the open pages in front of him. "Has something happened?"
Well. He wasn't as polite as Eiji deserved, Fuji would admit as much, but what was he supposed to do? He had finally reached a point where the plot was about to be unravelled and everything revealed. At last, he would find out whether or not the protagonist (a Hiroko-kun, who possessed striking similarities with Hyoutei's resident diva but somehow managed to come across as a rather likeable character) would recover from his amnesia (caused by a car accident… or was it?) and be reunited with his long-lost childhood friend (who happened to be the mysterious spy sent to infiltrate Hiroko-kun's multi-million cooperation in exchange for the life of his younger sister held captive by Hiroko-kun's own long-lost stepbrother) or if that long-lost childhood friend had really perished in the terrible fire that had dragged on over three whole chapters, which may or may not have been arson. To pass up on all that delicious, unresolved thrill in favour of something as ordinary as conversation? Fuji for one thought not, even when taking into careful consideration Eiji and his ungodly reflexes and tennis-honed aim.
"Why should I tell you anything when you're not even paying any attention to me, nya!" Eiji only barely refrained from stomping his left foot emphatically, because that would have been childish. "Mou, Fujiko!"
This was troublesome. Eiji obviously wanted something from him ('Fujiko' certainly gave that away), but Fuji couldn't tell if his friend was seriously upset or just excited. It was always hard to tell with Eiji, especially when all he had to go on was his voice: not only did Eiji seem to operate under some inexhaustible Kikumaru Overdrive for most of the time, but the only real distinguishable difference between Eiji being Upset and Eiji being Excited was a hair-fine variation in pitch. But what Fuji did know (and with Inui-like confidence at that) was that Eiji would tell him exactly what was going on in a matter of seconds.
"Why didn't you tell me that the Photography Club is holding an exhibition after school?!" Eiji demanded nothing short of a stellar explanation from Fuji, who was supposed to be Eiji's bestest friend (except for Oishi) and yet had so selfishly kept something so important to himself.
In the wake of this unexpected question – or was it actually a statement? – Fuji did what any sane person would have and finally tore his eyes from his book to take a good look at the fuming Kikumaru Eiji, who (in response to the long-awaited attention, no doubt) brightened up considerably before the frowning set in again. Then both to Fuji's surprise and immense amusement, Eiji proceeded to stare at him accusingly, as if Fuji had just stolen the last of Eiji's favourite toothpaste of the moment from right under his nose and straight off his toothbrush.
"…I had to find out from Hitomi-chan," continued the tennis acrobat darkly when Fuji's perpetual smile didn't seem to dim at all, not even after hearing that damning piece of evidence. "So what have you got to say for yourself, nya!"
Eiji being Eiji was normally a very sunny character, and Fuji realized with some regret that he had rather little experience with this agitated and demanding side of him. Truth to be told, he wasn't entirely sure of how to quickest defuse the situation; it really was a shame that Oishi wasn't in their class this year. As Eiji's more or less permanent doubles partner, he was without a doubt the best qualified person to ask about this sort of thing. But with time steadily ticking away, and determined to have the misunderstanding resolved before class started, Fuji decided that he would just have to channel his Inner Oishi the best that he could.
"I'm sorry, Eiji," he said, playing a card he had seen Oishi use to perfection during many a tense tennis match, even nodding twice for added emphasis. "I didn't think you'd be very interested, that's all."
'Especially since this wouldn't be our first exhibition,' he very nearly added but didn't. Fuji didn't need to be Oishi (or Inui) to see the sense in leaving that part out, especially when his apology seemed to have done the trick. Eiji's frown had lessened significantly at the end of it, and he was even withdrawing his hands from Fuji's desk (and away from his book, which was important).
Seigaku's resident prodigy sent the absent half of the Golden Pair a thought full of gratitude, and next door, Oishi sneezed mid-sentence.
"Mou! Fujiko is so cruel!" Eiji's dramatic wailing was full of self-pity before he did one of his emotional U-turns to exclaim, "Your photos are the best, nya!"
"Saa, Eiji. You wanting to come to the exhibition has nothing to do with Hitomi-san, does it?" teased Fuji good-naturedly. Privy as he was to Eiji's many likes and dislikes, it hadn't passed him by how Eiji's partiality towards all things cute and brunette happened to coincide very nicely with the fact that Hasegawa Hitomi of the Photography Club was a particularly pretty shade of dark auburn.
"Nyaaa, Fujiko!" Eiji laughed nervously; while it was true that Hitomi-chan was really popular with everyone because she was kind and helpful and didn't spend every second of the day gossiping like some other girls, and that she was really cute when she smiled, Hitomi-chan was just a friend... a friend! They were too young to date anyway, so Fuji shouldn't make clever comments like that to make it sound like Eiji was all about personal gain when his intentions were to cheer for Fuji and support Fuji because he was friends with Fuji and… "I want to see your photos, nya! It's just a bonus that Hitomi-chan is there, too. Just a bonus, you hear? Mou! I'm all blushy now for no reason, nya!"
Honestly, Fuji would have called him on it hadn't he been so relieved that Eiji seemed to have forgotten about not being told about the event in the first place. Eiji, on his part, found the silence (and Fuji's closed-eye gaze, which could be really unnerving, because there was absolutely no way of knowing where Fuji was actually looking and what he was thinking) really uncomfortable. But as he was looking around the classroom, desperate to find something non-Hitomi-chan related to say, he was struck by such a genial idea that it would've been criminal not to share it with Fuji, whom it directly concerned.
"Hoi hoi, I got it, nya!" he announced, loudly and with renewed excitement. "I'll get everyone to come after practise! Then we'll all be there to cheer you on, nya! What do you say? Isn't it great?"
"Do as you wish," replied Fuji simply but without any greater enthusiasm. He had rather hoped that Eiji wouldn't realize that there was an exhibition to begin with, just as their previous couple of events had passed him by completely unnoticed. But that was obviously not to be. Once Eiji set his mind on something, preciously little could persuade him to do otherwise. "But my contribution really isn't that special, so you don't have to push your—"
"Fujiko's just being modest, nya!"
Eiji smiled broadly, and even managed to fire off one last wink full of win and sparkle before the bell rang and Kobayashi-sensei asked Kikumaru-kun to kindly take a seat at his own desk so the lesson could start.
So this was probably what it felt like to have one's fate sealed, thought Fuji to himself as he watched Eiji bounce off to the other side of the room with a cheerful, "Hai, sensei!"
It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that Eiji really would manage to convince everyone on the team, Echizen included and maybe even Tezuka (though that might be stretching even Eiji's uncanny knack for getting exactly what he wanted out of people, a bit too far) to come with him, and he would only get more determined to go if Fuji told him not to. And with the exhibition just hours away, and already having asked for and obtained Ryuuzaki-sensei's permission to skip afternoon practise to help setting up the venue, it was too late for Fuji to withdraw any of his pieces. It would seem that all he could really hope for was that a lesser natural disaster – or a new Super-Duper Platinum Remix Inui Juice, perhaps? – would somehow keep the Tennis Club away from the exhibition hall itself.
Fuij only meant well (and he usually did, except for when he didn't) and he had done the same to Yuuta all the time while they were growing up, which surely made it alright, ne? But to be fair, he hadn't asked for their permission to make them his main project, so when they found out about his little coup…
Saa, who knows?
"Is it really okay for us to have come, Eiji?" asked Oishi Syuichirou with a concerned look on his face. "If Fuji wanted us to be here, I'm sure he would have told us about it himself and—"
"Oishi, don't worry so much! I promised we would cheer him on, nya!" Eiji waved off his overly anxious doubles partner's concerns with a bright smile. He then arched his neck, looking around the hectic exhibition hall; a sign on the way in had announced in rather proud terms that the Photography Club at Seishun Gakuen was playing host to a district-wide display. "Where is he, nya? Shouldn't he be around here somewhere?"
"Not necessarily," answered Inui Sadaharu promptly, pushing his ridiculously rectangular glasses (not even the regulars knew why Inui preferred them to be that way, but as long as they allowed Inui to play good tennis, it really didn't matter to any of them) a bit further up on the bridge of his nose. "There is a 76% chance that Fuji is staying away on purpose, knowing that we, in fact, have arrived."
Kawamura Takashi was taken greatly aback by his fellow third-year's heavy insinuations, which left very little to the imagination concerning Fuji's character – surely Fuji wouldn't be avoiding them on purpose, would he? – and felt very strongly that someone should come to the defence of Fuji's honour, seeing that he wasn't there to do so for himself. "Maa maa, Inui," he laughed uneasily when no-one else moved a muscle to do so, "I'm sure Fuji wouldn't do that…"
"You mean we came here for nothing?" exclaimed Momoshiro 'Momo-chan' Takeshi a bit too loudly, earning them all odd looks from several unsuspecting spectators. "I can't believe it! I can't!"
"Quiet, you idiot!" hissed Kaidoh Kaoru angrily at his arch-rival, also rolling his eyes for good measure. "You're being annoying!"
Echizen Ryoma looked on as the two second-years quickly lost interest in everything but each other, and heaved a deep sigh. He had known all along that this everyone-let's-support-Fujiko outing (what with a title like that – courtesy of Kikumaru-senpai, who else? – it was a given) was going to be a complete waste of practise time, but trust his noisy senpai-tachi to make the experience even worse. Honestly, in a perfect world he would still be at the school courts, playing a game of tennis with buchou who had been smart enough to firmly decline Kikumaru-senpai's invitation to join them (and strong enough to resist the alluring promise of Ponta afterwards). In a slightly less perfect world, he would be at home, playing a set or two against the perverted creature married to his mother and posing as his father. But of course, this being an imperfect and annoying world, he was stuck in an overcrowded art hall with his embarrassing senpai-tachi, who seemed mere seconds away from trading blows. And on top of that, Fuji-senpai (who at least had some interesting tennis moves up his sleeve) was nowhere to be seen.
'Life', thought the first-year with twelve long years' worth of wisdom to back him up, 'really wasn't fair sometimes.'
"You got something to say, Mamushi?"
Samurai Junior heaved another frustrated sigh, feeling even more annoyed over at for once not having his trusty cap to pull down over his eyes to physically shield himself from the pointless stupidity that was bound to be going on somewhere nearby. Indoor school events imposed a strict dress code on all participants, one which prohibited all forms of headwear; something an elderly sensei had kindly pointed out to him, in fact, moments after Momo-senpai dragged him into the display hall, very much against his will and by the scruff of his neck.
But even storm clouds as irritating as this one came with silver linings: with a bit of luck, Momo-senpai and Kaidoh-senpai would provide enough distraction for the others (Kikumaru-senpai in particular, as he stood entirely to blame for his being squashed between Momo-senpai and someone's proud mother in the first place) to notice that he was slowly inching himself away from the spectacle in the direction of the exit.
"Bastard, what the hell did you call me?" Kaidoh lunged forward to grab on to Momo's uniform collar, but as usual they were interrupted before a proper fight even had a chance to get officially started.
"Oi, you two! Cut it out already!"
With Momoshiro and Kaidoh (so hot-headed!) circling one another like a pair of starving hyenas fighting it out over a fresh carcass, Oishi decided that it was about time for someone to step up to the plate and put an end to the madness, and that he might as well be the person to do it. After all, even though he normally tolerated all sorts of odd things for the sake of team harmony and cohesion, Oishi could hardly be expected to stand by and do nothing when something so precious as the Tennis Club's good name and reputation was on the line! Why, as a senpai, he had to set a good example to Echizen and the other underclassmen – not to mention his responsibility to Tezuka as his trusted second-in-command! How could he look his friend in the eye ever again if something bad happened on his watch; if he let his guard down even for one, unsuspecting moment; if he let Tezuka down somehow? No. He wouldn't.
"Momoshiro! Kaidoh!" urged the vice-captain with renewed resolve. "Stop it! You're causing a scene!"
"Fuji-senpai isn't here, so I don't see why we need to be either," interjected Echizen sourly, using deliberately watered-down logic that he hoped might appeal to his simplistic senpai-tachi. Anything so he could go home already; it was still fairly light outside, despite it being almost five o'clock in the evening and (selflessly putting his growling stomach to one side for the greater good) if he left now, he could probably fit in at least a couple of games with his old man before it got too dark.
"Yeah. I'm with Echizen on this one." Momo nodded, dusting himself off and glaring at Kaidoh. "Let's go. I'm hungry! Hungry!"
"Fshuu, when aren't you hungry?" muttered Kaidoh under his breath. It never sat quite right with him, these strange, unwelcome moments when he and the peach-brain actually agreed on something, but Kaidoh wasn't about to make a big fuss in case someone took notice and commented on it. "Baka."
"Ehh? Did you say something, Mamushi?"
"Shut up! I—"
"But we can't just leave!" Eiji began to gesticulate wildly, as if frantic movement alone would somehow convince his mutinous teammates to stay. "We can't!"
Eiji would most likely have gone on to explain his stance in greater detail, but before anything else could be said or done, the three underclassmen surprised everyone (including themselves) by chorusing in perfect unison, "Why not?"
"Minna, don't you think it would be hurtful to Fuji if he found out that we had been here but left straightaway?" pointed out Oishi, who was particularly sensitive to these things. "Since we're already here, let's just do the best we can with the situation."
"We, uh, should at least have a look at his photos before we decide on anything else," he finished weakly when only Eiji and Taka-san seemed to agree. Momoshiro, Kaidoh and Echizen were still looking contrary and disgruntled, while Inui was hiding behind his opaque glasses as usual and of no help whatsoever.
Or was he?
Oishi stopped mid-thought. It was definitely a gamble, and as such it wouldn't necessarily work out, but if he played his sorry-looking hand just right, he might pull it off.
He turned to the data specialist with a nervous smile. "We could learn a lot from this experience, especially since it's a side to Fuji that we don't normally see. Ne, Inui?"
Oishi felt terrible at taking advantage of Inui's rampant obsession with acquiring everyone's data, Tezuka and Fuji's in particular, but the sheer impossibility of the situation (and Eiji's large, pleading cat-eyes begging him to make things right again in the way only Oishi could) left him no choice but to play a whole lot dirtier and underhanded than he would have liked.
"That is correct," agreed his fellow third-year readily, clearly not aware of Oishi's devious side just yet. "This is a rare opportunity to collect some personal data on Fuji… That was very thoughtful of you, Oishi."
And poor Oishi nearly broke down and apologized on the spot. Inui was grateful! Surely it wasn't right to—oh. Inui had, literally, in a blink of an eye, conjured up one of his many green notebooks (this one neatly labelled 'Fuji, S. Personal Data, vol. 3') and judging from the ominous gleam over his glasses and the peculiar smile slowly spreading across his lips like a particularly nasty stain, Inui was pumped and ready for some serious data collection. Suddenly, Oishi didn't feel as guilty anymore.
Yes, indeed. Had Inui Sadaharu been so inclined, he might have been rubbing his hands together, cackling gleefully in utter triumph. Thus far, the Tensai of Seigaku had proven completely unreadable even to friendly eyes, but Inui was confident that not even Fuji Syusuke could evade him and his superior data techniques for much longer. Admittedly, the numbers were against him (a staggering 94% in fact), but Inui was sure that he needed just one major breakthrough to finally crack the secret to Fuji's tennis. Perhaps this would be the destined moment when everything fell into place and all those wasted hours, discarded notebooks and failed calculations finally, finally paid off!
Underneath his carefully constructed façade of total indifference, Inui almost felt like breaking into song.
"…alright, fine," sighed Momo tiredly. Art really wasn't his 'thing', it was almost dinner time and he held nothing against the prospect of a burger or two, but he knew from experience that keeping Inui-senpai from collecting data was just as pointless as being civil to Mamushi. "Pictures, right? So where are they?"
"They're photographs, Momo-senpai. And they're over there." The youngest (and smallest) regular helpfully pointed to a section of wall not too far away. Honestly, Fuji-senpai's photos could be at the Antarctic for all he cared, but the sooner Inui-senpai got his precious data, the sooner they could all go home. "Behind those stands."
"Good work, Ochibi!" cheered Eiji, appearing behind the Super Rookie to ruffle his dark hair. "Just like in a detective movie, nya!"
"Fuji-senpai's name is on that sign. Anyone could have figured it out, even Momo-senpai," muttered 'Ochibi' unhappily, wasting no time in dodging the attack and dancing out of the acrobat's reach. 'Neko'-senpai sure as heck didn't look like it, but he had a surprisingly firm grip.
"Mada mada dane, Kikumaru-senpai," he added smugly, one hand automatically reaching up toward his forehead before he remembered that there was nothing there for it to pull down. Che.
Eiji eyed Fuji's allocated section of creative space excitedly. "Hoi! Hoi!" he exclaimed, latching on to his doubles partner's wrist. "Oiiiishi! Let's go look! Let's go look, nya!"
Oishi gulped. "I-I'm right behind you, Eiji!"
But before he too separated from the rest of the herd, Oishi gave his remaining teammates a pointed look overflowing with meaning: from here on out, they would all be in on this together, bound by the holy 'one for all and all for one' principle, which dictated that grave be the consequences (and numerous the laps around the tennis courts come tomorrow morning) to befall he who was traitorous and/or stupid enough to chicken out.
"Data," muttered Inui to himself as he and Kawamura dutifully followed in Oishi's footsteps.
"Sure. Why not." Momo shrugged, and promptly clamped Echizen under one arm, forcefully dragging the helpless but nonetheless protesting ("Yada! Let go, Momo-senpai! Let go!") twelve-year-old towards Fuji-senpai's display. "Be a good kouhai and don't make such a racket, Echizen!"
"Fshuu," was Kaidoh's only comment on the unsightly pair in front of him. Honestly, acting like total idiots, the both of them!
"Momo-senpai," began Echizen somewhat uncertain, "Fuij-senpai's photos…"
"The flower is really pretty, ne?" Eiji was bouncing on the spot, trying to decide which one of the artistically arranged photo sequences he liked best. "But the cat is very good too, nya!"
"Fshuu," agreed Kaidoh quietly. He liked cats, but he wasn't about to share that particular fact with anyone, especially not with that Momo-baka-shiro around. That smartass would probably start laughing if he ever found out, and say, "Mamushi likes small furry animals? To eat, maybe! To eat!" or something stupid like that. Just thinking about it made Kaidoh mad.
"The way he captures the light in this one..." Inui was studying a red sunset reflecting off a shallow pond, furiously jotting down notes. "There is a 67% chance that Fuji enhanced the natural effect with some kind of computer software, and there's an 89% chance that he used Photoshop when taking into account its high availability even to amateur photographers. Iii data."
"Oi, Echizen! It's Fuji-senpai we're talking about here, but… I didn't think he was into this sort of stuff either." Momo was scratching the back of his neck, trying to somehow reconcile Fuji-senpai the Scary Tennis Genius who had never lost a tennis match in his whole life (and who sometimes messed up his practise drills on purpose just to get to try Inui-senpai's newest concoction, which he then recommended to the rest of them!) with the Fuji-senpai who apparently enjoyed frolicking through grassy meadows at dawn with his camera (and who befriended stray cats, cacti, koi ponds, birds, apples, bits of wasabi and all sorts of weird, unexpected things). It was sort of shocking that he hadn't known about this side of Fuji-senpai until now, despite having played tennis on the same team for almost two years, but it made him think that maybe Inui-senpai wasn't crazy after all. Getting data off of Fuji-senpai was probably really hard. "Look, there's even a fish over there!"
"Fish?" Oishi immediately perked up. "Where?"
"Fourth photo to the right," replied Kawamura helpfully before going back to admiring a close-up of a lump of wasabi floating in a small dish of soy sauce.
"Oh… an Amphiprion ocellaris."
Well. There was a fair representative of a subfamily if Oishi had ever seen one, and a credit to the species as a whole. But even Oishi had to admit that it was a lot more photogenic than he could have ever imagined: its soft contours, bright shades of orange and overall pretty colour combination really made it a stand-out model. Fuji really had remarkable insight, didn't he?
"Oishi, I don't know about it being an Amphi-whatever, nya…"Eiji glanced first at the photographs, then at his doubles partner. "But don't you mean it's a clownfish?"
He hadn't been particularly loud, but all eyes immediately turned to the Golden Pair and Inui proclaimed with his usual air of absolute authority, "There's a 76% chance that Kikumaru has somehow absorbed this knowledge through prolonged exposure to—"
"I… I didn't know you were so knowledgeable about fish, Eiji," Oishi blurted out, thus putting a premature end to Inui's announcement to the latter's great annoyance. But considering that he was about to get the Big Scoop on Fuji (and that he already had both Oishi and Kikumaru's data), Inui decided to be the bigger man and let it slide.
Oishi, on his part, didn't mean to sound so astonished (while nobody could accuse Kikumaru Eiji of being particularly academically inclined, it was straight out insulting that his own tennis partner assumed that he didn't know things when he obviously did) and under more normal circumstances, Oishi would have been apologizing profusely at this point, but Eiji's offhand remark had really come as a shock to him. And as Oishi quickly glanced around, he gathered that the others were just as surprised.
"Ehh, I really don't know much about fish, nya!" protested Eiji meekly when everyone (even Kaoru-chan!) was looking at him as if he had just told them that he was an alien and had grown a second head or something. "It's just that it looks a lot like the one that's lost in that cute movie about a father fish looking all over the ocean for his lost fish son," he hurried to explain. "The one with the mean dentist, nya!"
"E-Eiji…" was just about all Oishi managed before he was rudely interrupted by Momo's roaring laughter.
Kawamura was growing acutely aware of the generous amount of staring at the now gagging second-year was generating at their small corner of the hall, and for the sake of some peace and quiet, the gentle power-player did his best to calm his junior teammate down. Sadly, it didn't go very well; Momo had sunk to his knees, gripping his sides, more or less crying with laughter.
Kaidoh sighed deeply, but decided that he might as well step up and do something about the situation. After all, he was going to be associated with brainless twit on the floor for another year (at least!), wasn't he? He was also beginning to feel a bit sorry for Kawamura-senpai, who was trying his best but who was ridiculously timid without his tennis racquet to wave around. So the Snake Shot-specialist cleared his throat and said, rather roughly, "It's no use, senpai. The idiot doesn't even know when to stop."
Kawamura froze mid-helping, and so did Momo. If Kaidoh had been anything like Inui-senpai, the reaction alone would have yielded enough material for a whole new chapter on Momoshiro.
Echizen smirked and looked up at his idiots to senpai-tachi imperiously. "Mada mada da—"
"What an unusual interpretation of the theme, Fuji-kun."
The unmistakably shrill voice of one Kobayashi-sensei could suddenly be heard above the rest, even across rows of stands and not an insignificant crowd of people, and Eiji's eyes lit up at the sound of Fuji's name.
"Hoi hoi! He's here! It's Fu—"
A hand was clamped tightly over his mouth (Momo-chan's?), and a voice hissed in his ear to please be quiet and stop struggling by 43% (Inui's. Definitely Inui's). The tennis team (minus Tezuka, all the sub-regulars and Fuji himself, of course) then inched forward in order to better listen in on the conversation the best that they could.
"Saa, you really think so, sensei?" Fuji sounded a bit surprised, but rather pleased with himself nonetheless. "Thank you."
"But I believe your assignment was to document a particular interest, a hobby… not people?"
The teacher sounded genuinely curious.
"Yes, sensei. But when I thought about it, I realized that although I like many things, I enjoy tennis the most," explained Fuji slowly, as if in deep thought. "They are the ones I share it with. Without them, tennis would just be a sport, not an interest."
"I see." Kobayashi-sensei sounded appropriately impressed, and Eiji could imagine Fuji beaming back at her. Say what you wanted about Fujiko and his ways, but he could be devastatingly charming when he wanted to; Ba-chan still talked about 'that nice boy who came to visit' and that had been almost two years ago. "Well, congratulations, Fuji-kun. I'm sure your teammates will be pleased. Are they here to support you?"
"I don't think so, sensei. Eiji said he might bring the rest of the team along with him, but so far I haven't seen any of them," stated Fuji calmly and matter-of-factly. "But there was a tennis practise in the afternoon, and I'm sure they have better things to do."
"That's a shame. Your contribution is refreshingly different from the others. Keep up the good work, Fuji-kun."
"Hai. I will do my best, sensei. Thank you for taking the time to visit our exhibition."
This time, the smile in Fuji's reply was clear to everyone, and Inui was taking notes with such ferocity that Echizen would later swear on Karupin's whiskers to have witnessed a thin ringlet of smoke rise from the tip of Inui-senpai's ballpoint pen.
"Fuji-kun? Fuji-kun, there you are!" A girl's voice could be heard above the general chatter. "Oh I'm really sorry, Fuji-kun, I didn't mean to interrupt your interview with Kobayashi-sensei."
"Don't worry about it, Hitomi-san, sensei was finished here anyway. How is your exhibition going?" inquired Fuji politely.
Momo made a mental note on how the red-head in his arms suddenly stopped moving around, going strangely limp. Like a fish on dry land, he thought to himself. Maybe even a clownfish! They were sort of red like Eiji-senpai, weren't they?
"No problems so far! The other schools seem to have fun as well, and Araki-sensei looks happy with the way things have turned out. I'm so relieved! But, um, there is this one thing, actually: one my films isn't coming out like it should. It isn't part of my exhibition or anything, but I would really like to have it fixed before my mother gets here, so I can show her. She's taking time off from work just to be here, so uh… I've been asking around, but no-one seems to be ready to leave their station yet. The problem isn't very complicated at all, so I won't be gone for very long. I'm really sorry to have to ask, but would you mind looking after things for me in the meantime, Fuji-kun?"
"Of course I don't mind. Sensei has already finished evaluating my work, so there's really no hurry. I'll cover for you."
"Thank you, Fuji-kun! Your photos are really good this time around, too. Araki-sensei must have given you good feedback, ne?"
"Sensei thought that my idea was interesting, but I still need a lot of work." Then he added, "Saa, it's such a shame that Eiji isn't here. I'm sure he would have appreciated all your hard work."
"You really think so? But Eiji-kun is that kind of person, isn't he?"
"He is. Where is your main display, then? Is it far?"
"Hai. It's just down the hall, next to Kaede-chan's. I'm really grateful for this, Fuji-kun. I'll be right back, I promise!"
Seigaku's assembled tennis elite noted with varying degrees of interest how the unusually quiet Kikumaru Eiji suddenly jerked back to life.
"The… ones… I… share… it… with…?" repeated Momo incredulously. "What the heck does that even mean? I don't get it! I really don't!"
'Fshuu. How am I supposed to know? Talking to yourself like that makes you look like a bigger idiot than normal,' was Kaidoh's honest opinion on the matter (one, which he also voiced out loud, in verbatim, for Momoshiro's benefit).
"…what did you say?!"
"Maa maa, let's not fight in here."
But Kawamura's valiant cries for peace fell on deaf ears as usual.
"I dare you to say that again, Mamushi!" snapped Momo dangerously at Kaidoh.
"Momoshiro, Kaidoh!" Oishi called out, expertly ignoring the familiar feeling of hundreds of déjà vus happening all over again and at the same time.
"There is an 89% chance that Fuji isn't coming back to his own display for at least another twenty minutes," said Inui. "We should use that time to look at those photographs. We might learn something interesting."
"You heard him! Come on!" Eiji had freed himself from Momo the moment the latter had relaxed his death grip on the former. "Come on, nya! Let's go see! Let's go!"
"A-Alright. Minna, let's do it! It's Fuji, after all. He wouldn't have done anything bad, would he?"
"…mada mada dane, Oishi-senpai."
Not that he was very talkative even on a good day, but Kawamura was even more speechless than usual. Fuji's photos were superb in their simplicity. Sure, he had often seen Fuji fiddle around with his camera between matches, after school and on weekends, but who would have thought that he was such a good photographer? Or that he looked so, um, aggressive when he played tennis? The gentle giant laughed embarrassedly at a photo of himself looking practically on fire. What an interesting effect, but what had Inui said earlier about Photoshop enhancements? Technology these days.
Inui regarded Fuji's second set of photographs (there was a 98% chance that this was his main exhibit) in thoughtful silence. It was vulgar and totally beneath him, but… well, curses! In spite of being vaguely aware of Fuji's interest in photography from before—
(Page 32 of 'Fuji, S. Personal data, vol. 1' even contained a brief passage on the matter:
SUBJECT: Photography Club.
F. disclosed membership of the Photography Club after expressing exceptional interest in upcoming exhibit 'Nature in Cities' by renowned photographer Hayasaki Tadao. Number of attempts by F. to convince T. to accompany him to aforementioned exhibit: 5. Number of failed attempts by F. to convince T. to accompany him to aforementioned exhibit: also 5. Conclusion #1: 100% fail rate by F. in convincing T. to accompany him to aforementioned exhibit, and 41% chance of T. disliking photography exhibitions in general. Also T. cites 'prior arrangements' for every day in the next two weeks. Conclusion #2: Family commitments—60% chance. Academic commitments—30% chance. Private tennis lessons away from the team—6%. Other general—4% chance. Other specifically due to interference by unknown entity (female)—negligent. Conclusion #3: 10% chance of suspicious activity in the next two weeks, and an opportunity to further expand the section on T.'s weekly routine. See 'Tezuka, K. Personal data, vol. 2', page 3 for a list of known interests.
CONCLUSION on F.: Reliable source of information (primary), but irrelevant for all intents and purposes (tennis).
Category: Level 1—Trivia.)
—Inui had decided against pursuing that line of investigation, foolishly dismissing the 1.2% chance of their tensai being this good at anything other than tennis as 'not impossible but highly improbable'. Even with 98.8% chance against him, Fuji had somehow (and without any direct knowledge of even doing so, this time) defied his data yet again. The situation was unacceptable, as were the page upon pages of new notes and observations that with 99% likelihood never could be converted into anything useful; and so utterly illogical that Inui hardly knew where to start. Still, a true master of data did not give up. Ever. This was just a minor setback – a mere hiccup – that would come to matter very little on the grander scale of things (once Inui acquired all of Fuji's data, that is). Fuji and his unpredictability may have won today's battle, but Inui and Data Tennis would surely win the war. He would just have to be patient.
Naturally, Echizen Ryoma was interested in only the photos of himself. Firstly noting that he really did look kind of short when standing next to buchou, and secondly wondering why the heck his Twist Serve looked crooked on that one photograph to the upper left?
"…it's us." Eiji turned to his doubles partner, sounding unusually subdued and full of awe. "Oishi, these are all about us. Isn't it ama—"
"Eiji," interrupted Oishi, gently but firmly, "I think it's time for us to go now."
"I agree." Inui closed his notebook with a decisive snap, and put his pen back into his right trouser pocket. "According to my calculations, there is a 95% chance that Fuji never intended for us to see these photographs. I think we should at least pretend to adhere to his unspoken wishes."
Kaidoh did his best not to let his rampant confusion show, but 'adhering to Fuji-senpai's unspoken wishes' what?
"But it doesn't make any sense for Fuji-senpai to hide them from us." Momo scratched the back of his neck. "Why not show them off a bit? They're good, aren't they?"
"Undoubtedly," replied Inui. "But consider this. Somehow, Fuji managed to take these photographs without our direct knowledge – why? There are only two logical reasons for that: either he was too intimidated to ask for our permission, and keep in mind that Fuji's is a personality that doesn't embarrass or scare easily; or he never intended to tell us at all. Our limited knowledge of Fuji considered, it would seem most likely that he used us as subjects for a candid camera experiment. After all, we appear extremely natural and relaxed both in ourselves and in our interactions with each other, but that was made possible only through our genuine ignorance of the camera—"
Inui paused to let the rest catch up with his explanation. With a little practise and some patience (in a 1:3 ration to optimize the results), just about anyone could learn how to hit a tennis ball back and forth over the net reasonably well, but there was a very real reason why successful practitioners of Data Tennis were a rare breed.
"—and now that we have seen them, the photographs have lost some of their meaning. However, as long as Fuji remains unaware of it, their value remains unchanged from his point of view. As to why Fuji decided to include this particular collection at all, I expect that he never even entertained the idea that we would see them. After all, we have never attended any of his other exhibitions before, and there have been at least two smaller showings so far in this academic year alone."
Uneasy silence settled over the group as each person tried to digest the information that Inui had just bombarded them with.
"…I think Inui is right," Kawamura finally said. To be honest, Inui didn't make all that much sense with his talk about unspoken wishes and values (and though he personally harboured some pretty hefty objections to essentially lying to Fuji, who could have told them about his project, Kawamura supposed, but has chosen not to for some reason that ought to be respected), but Kawamura couldn't shake the strange feeling that Fuji's photographs weren't really of them as much as they were about them. That made it personal to Fuji somehow, so… Kawamura wasn't exactly good at this, and perhaps Oishi and Inui were right. Maybe it was for the best to just leave it alone and slowly forget about it.
Eiji, on his part, only had a vague idea of what his fellow third-years were getting at. But even then, he couldn't help thinking that leaving so suddenly, and without any word to Fujiko first, would be unforgivably rude. "But Oishi, we haven't even said hello to—"
"We'll see Fuji-senpai tomorrow morning at practise," interrupted Echizen, somehow managing to sound only half as impatient as he truly felt. He couldn't say that he understood why Oishi-senpai was in such a hurry to leave all of a sudden (or what the heck Inui-senpai had even been babbling about before), but neither could he say that he cared very deeply for their reasons: Echizen Ryoma wanted to go home, and with Inui-senpai finally putting away his notebook, it didn't seem like such a distant dream anymore. So if Kikumaru-senpai was going to pose a threat to that happening anytime soon, then Kikumaru-senpai would have to be neutralized in any way possible. "…and it's almost time for dinner, anyway."
The freshman cast a calculating look in Momo-senpai's direction, and he wasn't disappointed when Momo-senpai immediately took his place on the bandwagon.
"Yeah, dinner! What are we waiting for? I'm hungry!" Momo threw his hands over his head and swiftly made for the exit. "Are you coming or what, Mamushi?"
"What did you just call me?" hissed Kaidoh angrily. "Bastard! I'll make you pay!"
"Maa maa, let's not fight in here, you two," interjected Kawamura with a nervous laugh, quickly edging himself between the resident hot-heads and wasting no time in directing the unhappy pair out of the building, where the others soon joined them.
Well outside, Oishi held up a hand and cleared his throat for their attention. "Minna," he began, a bit embarrassedly, because what he was about to ask of them wasn't exactly honest, "um, let's not, eh, tell Fuji that we were here. Okay?"
And to the long-suffering vice-captain's immense relief, both Eiji and Taka-san immediately nodded their understanding, and Oishi had learnt through experience that a silent Inui was an agreeing Inui (or at least an Inui who was happy enough with the proceedings not to make any clever suggestions to the contrary). The team's younger members, however, weren't as readily accepting of his request.
"Why not, Oishi-senpai?" demanded Echizen to know. "Fuji-senpai isn't going care."
"Yeah. Why not?" chimed Momo in, mostly because it went against his pride as a senpai to leave the last word to a lowly first-year.
"Fhsuu…?" added Kaidoh after some thorough soul-searching. He, too, wanted to know, but agreeing with that Momoshiro for a record-breaking second time in one day, and over such a short period of time: it wasn't at all natural. Something was wrong, he could feel it… and now that he thought about it, hadn't the water tasted a bit funny at practise? Maybe some strange, reality-warping chemical had gotten into the school's supply of drinking water by mistake? Or maybe Inui-senpai had tested out some new, terrifying juice without anyone knowing? It wouldn't be the first time that happened, and… Dammit! Kaidoh respected Inui-senpai a lot, but he'd definitely choose the prospect of chemical contamination over Penal-Tea 5.0 (or worse, some cousin of Aozu!) any day.
"Oishi. There is an 83% chance that they won't understand even if we explained it again." Inui raised a hand to silence the flood of indignant protests (any combination of Momoshiro and Echizen with 91% chance) and hissing (Kaidoh with 96% chance) in response to his condescending statement. "But there's a 99.4% chance that you may buy their cooperation with food."
Oishi suddenly felt very, very tired. He should have taken a leaf out of Tezuka's book, and just said 'no' when Eiji asked him along to Fuji's photography exhibit, but how was he to know that such a harmless-sounding event would end up being so expensive?
Oh well. It was too late to harbour any regrets now (besides being unfairly harsh on Eiji, who couldn't possibly have predicted that things would turn out this way either), and Oishi announced with forced cheer, "It's about dinner time anyway, so how about stopping by for something to eat? Burgers, anyone?"
("And Ponta," was Eiji quick to add when Echizen muttered something about broken promises.)
Momo's eyes immediately lit up with the intensity of a raging forest fire, sparkling with the power of a thousand rainbows, and Oishi fairly shuddered. Momoshiro's reaction conveyed the at once satisfying (for Oishi's selfish purposes) and slightly frightening message that provided he was being fed to an adequate level, the tennis team's number one rascal would be fully capable of forgetting even his own name.
"…it's my treat, of course," amended Oishi reluctantly through gritted teeth when he noticed that neither Kaidoh nor Echizen looked particularly impressed yet.
But once he set his commitment to the procuring of hamburgers (and Ponta) in stone, Oishi could tell that they too would be on-board with whatever they were instructed... which was funny in a way, because Oishi would never have expected Kaidoh to be tempted (and successfully bribed) with junk food of all things, but then he supposed that even health freaks had their vices.
Still, the unexpected addition of Kaidoh to their number meant one more mouth for Oishi to feed.
"Inui. Eiji," sighed the vice-captain, hoping that they would find it in their hearts (and wallets) to split the bill, which was bound to be massive by the end of the evening. He had deliberately left out Taka-san, though, because Oishi, who had stooped to both lying and cheating already, drew the line at asking Taka-san for financial aid. To do so would be like asking Tezuka for—oh. Taka-san had excused himself and left already. "Would you…?"
"Of course, anything else would be impolite," confirmed Inui solemnly, and Oishi almost felt like hugging the data boy. What were friends for if not to support one another, especially in hard times like these?
Oishi felt blessed indeed for being surrounded by such kind, helpful and intrinsically good people.
"Hoi hoi! Wait up, Ochibi! I wanna eat burgers, too!" shouted Eiji down the street. Ochibi and friends obviously thought that the upperclassman were taking too long – or maybe they were just really hungry, nya? – because they had already set off in the direction of the usual burger place, and they were quickly disappearing into the setting sun. But they were much, much mistaken if they thought that Eiji-sama would allow them any head-start on the food. "Ne, Oishi really is the best for treating us all to food, nya! Isn't that right, Inui?"
"Aa. The offer is too generous to turn down. As I said, it would be impolite," replied Inui, adjusting his glasses.
And just like that, Oishi was overcome with the strangest yearning to see his supposedly kind, helpful and intrinsically good friends suffer terrible, terrible fates.
"…oh dear," he muttered to himself, gently massaging his temples and doing his best to stay calm in the face of such dark, murderous and totally un-Oshi-like intentions. "I think I'm turning into Fuji."
"What's the matter, Oishi?" Eiji peered up at his doubles partner and best friend forever (except for Fujiko) with a genuinely concerned expression on his face. "Is there something wrong, nya? You can tell me, Oishi. I promise I won't laugh whatever it is, okay? Okay, nya?"
"That's… very good to know, Eiji. But you don't have to worry." Oishi didn't have the heart to tell Eiji, his other Golden Pair half and shared best friend with Tezuka that just thinking about the burgers-and-Ponta bill in direct relation to the modest content of his wallet was threatening to push him over the edge of what was right and sensible into homicidal fantasies. "I'm fine, really. It's nothing. I'm fine. Everything is just fine."
"Good, I wouldn't want Oishi to frown for any longer than he was to, nya! We're the Golden Pair, aren't we? And the Golden Pair always smiles, nya! Ne, Oishi!" Eiji's grin returned with a vengeance, and Oishi felt strangely re-energized merely by looking at it – maybe this wasn't the end after all! maybe everything would turn out okay somehow! – before the cat-like boy with a band-aid on his right cheek sprinted off, shouting over his shoulder, "Last one to the burger bar has to drink Inui's scary juice! Hoi hoi!"
Inui stared after the doubles-specialist disapprovingly, as he gradually faded from view at top speed. It was obvious for everyone to see that Kikumaru's special training menu was paying off; Oishi's partner in tennis was getting faster, and he could expect a gentle 56% increase to his ankle weights for his trouble. "Just now, did he…?"
"I think so," agreed Oishi, secretly readying himself to leave Inui behind in the dust. Precious teammate or not, Inui's mostly-maybe vegetable concoctions were unholy.
"Oishi—" Inui's glasses flashed dangerously in the last rays of the slowly setting sun, "—am I correct in that Kikumaru called my carefully formulated and categorically nutritious vegetable juices 'scary'?"
But if Inui was waiting for an answer, he would be waiting for a long time, because Oishi didn't stay long enough to confirm that Inui indeed had understood correctly – that Eiji indeed had called his creations 'scary' – and that Inui Juice (all of them!) in fact were beyond scary. Because Oishi was busy, very busy.
He was running for dear life.